America the Messy Yard Police State

Cities' timetables vary on saving public records

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by Ronald J. Hansen - Mar. 20, 2010 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

While Arizona has one public-records law, rules for keeping information are as varied as the state's governmental bodies.

Until recently, if you wanted to peruse legal opinions by the Scottsdale city attorney, the records were available for eight years. In Chandler, it's been three years, and in Tempe it's 10.

Such are the seemingly random rules for public records across the state.

"There's a lot of inconsistency in Arizona," said Byron Schlomach, an economist at the Goldwater Institute, which has recently waged high-profile legal battles to force officials in Phoenix and Glendale to share records on financial decisions involving public money.

Examining property records in Arizona is generally easy, Schlomach said, but getting information from local school districts can be maddening.

For years, localities have established their own timetable for preserving public records in consultation with the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.

The agency's Phoenix office contains dozens of three-ring binders filled with all of the local rules, many of which haven't been updated in decades.

The rules have meant the same types of records readily available in one city may be long gone in another, said Lisa Maxwell, director of records management at the state library agency.

Phoenix requires officials to preserve general correspondence involving the mayor for two years after the year it was created.

In Scottsdale, the same types of correspondence are supposed to be maintained for four years after the mayor's term of office. By comparison, Gilbert requires keeping such records for four years after the letter was sent or received.

Employee grievances are preserved for three years after they are resolved in Scottsdale, but Phoenix keeps them for eight years.

In recent weeks, Maxwell has tried to add a measure of consistency to the availability of public records after learning that some Phoenix employees mistakenly believed all e-mails can be deleted after 30 days.

For years, the state has pushed communities to adopt a more uniform time schedule for keeping records.

Now, Maxwell has informed local government agencies that they must keep records for at least as long as the state's general records schedule.

That means that legal opinions from local law departments now have to be kept for at least 10 years and executive correspondence for at least three years, Maxwell said. Each community can opt to keep records longer if they choose.

Beyond what the state's open-records law requires, there is the reality of sometimes uneven availability and cost.

Last week, a clerk in the Justice Court in Buckeye said searching for a misdemeanor case costs $17. In Phoenix, they said searching for the same type of record there costs $24.

More and more, officials in Maricopa County government claim records are either in draft form or are privileged to prevent release to the public. This has meant all kinds of documents - from records that critique inmate health-care operations to jail-population analyses - are considered off-limits.

Anyone requesting e-mails involving Chandler's City Council or mayor from the past 90 days can scroll through copies forwarded to their own computer.

In Phoenix, the same request means flipping through paper copies, and historically, only the past 30 days are made available. It's not clear whether Phoenix has yet changed its procedures, given Maxwell's direction that records be kept in accordance with the city's standard record policy, which varies depending on the type of document.

Scottsdale electronically maps where crimes are reported to its police, but it only updates the online display of jail bookings once a week.

In Mesa, jail bookings are available daily at the public-information office, as are forms outlining reasons for arrests. Those forms, which detail what is known as probable cause for an arrest, aren't made available in Glendale.

Last year, Phoenix was on the losing end of a legal case that may help set new national boundaries for openness in the electronic age.

The state Supreme Court ruled that a Phoenix police officer could gain electronic records that effectively showed changes to documents relating to his work evaluations.

While Phoenix isn't stellar in sharing electronic correspondence, it has been lauded for other records available online.

Last week, Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based non-profit organization that reviews government Web sites for transparency, gave the city an A- for its online offerings. In particular, the city did well for making information about its budgets, building permits and tax rates easy to find. Disclosures about lobbying activities were incomplete, the organization noted.

It was one of 39 state and local government Web sites to receive a "Sunny Award" among 5,000 sites reviewed. Pinal County also received an award.

Other records, such as expense reports and official schedules, are generally quickly available in Phoenix.

But government officials statewide can be cagey when openness matters most, Schlomach said.

"A lot of times, what they let you readily see is consistently vague," he said. Major budget spending is quickly available and often online, he said, but details within categories can be elusive.

"Officials sometimes justify it by saying (the details are) taken out of context," Schlomach said. "Well, maybe it's time to put them in context."

It's also time to reconsider what is a public record, Maxwell said. In November, her agency published its first guidelines on preserving social-media records involving programs like Facebook and Twitter.

State lawmakers are also weighing future openness. Earlier this month, the House passed a bill with 13 sponsors that would require local governments to post online searchable databases of revenue and expenditures. Another bill, from Rep. Tom Boone, R-Peoria, that would redact names from e-mails to public officials stalled in the House.

Republic reporters Lynh Bui, Dustin Gardiner, Edythe Jensen, Parker Leavitt, Ofelia Madrid, Dianna M. Nez, Rebekah Sanders, Yvonne Wingett and Scott Wong contributed to this article.

 
 

America the Messy Yard Police State